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Summer 2018 – The Future of Work

Whether we’re entrepreneurs, workers, or looking to enter the working world, one thing we can reasonably say is that the world of work is changing fast. But how can we deal with these changes? How can we make sure that we’re working towards a brighter future for ourselves?

In this newsletter, we’re dealing with these questions, and more importantly, the questions we should ask when looking toward the future of work.


 

A Working Future: Interview with Professor Dr. Paul Isely
by Steven Assarian, Business Librarian

The future of work is a difficult subject, because our work is changing at lightning speed. It’s hard to know how to prepare for the careers that will carry us into the future. But there are people who are trying to help us do exactly that.

One of them is Dr. Paul Isely, Dean of Undergraduate Programs at Grand Valley State University. I sat down with Dr. Isely to shed some light on how we should prepare for the future of work

Steve: One of the reasons I wanted to reach out to you was a MiBiz article in which you were quoted as saying, though we think a bunch of jobs are being automated and output per worker is therefore increasing, we’re not actually seeing the productivity increases due to automation that we should be. Why do you think that is?

Dr. Isely: There’s a lot of components that go into that figure because productivity is a basic measure of how good you are at producing value with your tools. First, older workers are retiring and being replaced by younger workers [...] they’re not as effective as someone with 20 years of experience doing a particular job, so they’re less productive.

Steve: Wow, I would not have thought of that as an input, the experience of a worker simply making them more productive.

Dr. Isely: If you’re doing the same things over and over again you, get better at it. It’s called practice (laughs). And when you replace a more experienced worker with a younger one, we see that learning curve reflected in their productivity. Now, that young worker will get good at their job, and their productivity will increase, but it takes awhile for that to happen.

Second, a lot of firms implement automation cautiously, trying to make sure that the present processes aren’t being interrupted. They’re not fully utilizing the automated systems they have in place. You have this old way of doing things and a new, automated way of doing things running at the same time.

If you have two systems running at once, regardless of how efficient the systems are, they’re not going to increase productivity. That’s not to say that there isn’t a reason for us to have those two systems - many people aren’t yet ready to switch over to new systems, regardless of industry - but while the transition is happening, you have less productivity.

Steve: So as the years go on, automation will start to come online and have a greater effect on our working lives?

Dr. Isely: Yep, absolutely, and this is usually accelerated by a recession.

Before the 1990s in recessions, you’d have a ‘v’ when it comes to employment numbers: everybody would lose their job, and then after the recession, they would get their jobs back when it was done. And it was the same job that they were doing before. What happened in the 1990’s was that, when a recession happened, you’d still have that sharp downward trend in employment, but then it came back more slowly. Every recession since that time employment numbers have taken longer to recover.

What’s happening there is that layoffs become an opportunity to automate particular jobs with labor-saving components. Nobody likes to fire anybody. Going in and telling someone they’re fired, you’re the bad guy. But if you say ‘we’re not selling enough, I have to lay you off,’ that means something different to a manager.

Steve: So how can new workers best prepare themselves for a job that likely didn’t exist ten years ago? How is it that anybody should prepare for that kind of working environment?

Dr. Isely: First, you have to understand that the workforce, and society as a whole, changing in faster cycles. You can’t train for a job expecting that job to be around for a long time. Therefore, you shouldn’t be thinking about a major, or even a particular job; you should be thinking about developing particular skill sets that will allow you to move across a class of jobs effectively. You might learn a particular job to get your foot in the door, of course, but you need to focus on skills that will allow you to move around in an organization. So I tell people: if you’re learning one skill, you will be unemployed in ten years. You need to be looking at more.

Second, look at particular skill sets that are harder to automate. If you think back to early computing and AI, it was really easy to teach a computer to play chess. Relatively speaking, it was really hard to teach a computer to walk. As humans, we think walking is easy and chess is hard. But chess is particularly suited to AI because it’s a limited set of rules. Because it’s rules-based, it’s relatively easy to program. Walking, though, is a series of minor adjustments that your brain and body are constantly reacting to. That’s harder for a computer to do.

So if you start thinking about jobs like accounting and computer programming, those are rules-based. Though they’re lucrative now, they’re easily automated. Things where you have to deal with humanity, make adjustments, working the gray areas of decision making, those are the jobs that tend to stick around.

Steve: Do you see automation not having as great of an effect on healthcare? Because so much of healthcare is that human connection?

Dr. Isely: But in healthcare, the jobs that have the greatest amount of human connection are the lowest paid workers. The highest paid workers are still the ones remembering rules and applying them to specific situations. And they’re in the process of being automated.

For example, if I’m in an area of the world without a ton of dermatologists, my dermatologist is my phone. I can take a picture of my skin, send it off, and get a diagnosis. That diagnosis gets checked by a dermatologist, but it’s automated. One of the most expensive sub-specialties in the US is dermatology.

So things get complex really, really fast.

Steve: That’s fascinating. It’s interesting to see that there are even ways to get around that human interaction.

Dr. Isely: So keeping that in mind, is there a job that’s completely future proof? Aside from some of those front-line interaction jobs that are pretty low pay, not really. Think about me as a professor. Elon Musk is working on creating a way for a computer to interact with the brain. If that’s successful, you’d be able to teach people things the same way they did in the Matrix.

So how does a professor’s job change? You don’t need to teach rules, but you still need to teach that critical thinking component to students, you just don’t need as many teachers to do it. A lot of jobs won’t necessarily be totally automated —accountants, lawyers, doctors, etc. — but will you need a bookkeeper to do the same things a bookkeeper does now? Probably not. Am I going to need certain specialties of doctors? Will I need as many lawyers? Lawyers are being AI’d really fast, because legal research can be done will by a computer.

It’s about having to make a decision in gray areas, especially people. People, remember, don’t conform to rules.



A Reading List for the Future of Work
By Jillian Canode
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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

The writers of this book aim to show how we are entering, as the title suggests, a second machine age, where technology will radically change our life, even more than it already has. The change will be so all-consuming, they say, the world will be as transformed as it was with the advent of the steam engine. They note that there will be casualties in the digital revolution: those most affected will be workers in developing nations. Despite the collateral damage the revolution will inflict, Brynjolfsson and McAfee assert the second machine age will benefit humanity, overall.


Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate
by Shawn Dubravac, Ph.D. 46799314 

Dr. Dubravac’s book is a discussion about harnessing and using data to solve humanity's most pressing issues. The introduction sees Dubravac offering statistics about traffic fatalities: how they’ve decreased over time, how they're still very high in India and China, and how they will be reduced nearly to zero if not totally to zero once driverless cars come on the scene on a grand scale. For Dubravac, this isn't a possibility; it will definitely happen. He devotes a chapter to it. He also makes predictions about our relationship to technology in the year 2025. Ultimately, for Dubravac, the future isn't so much about machines; we already have those. The future, our so-called Digital Destiny, lies with data.


The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future
by Kevin Kelly46885088

With his book, Kelly hopes to help readers be open and accepting of the technological changes coming our way. He presents Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Screening, Accessing, Sharing, Filtering, Remixing, Interacting, Tracking, Questioning, and Beginning as the forces that form what is to come. These inevitable forces are already at work in all our cultural, technological, and scientific developments. For example, communications are always evolving; Kelly explains that if we embrace that evolution, we can participate in the development of communication systems we want and need, instead of pushing the new away and ending up with systems that do not work for us.


Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
by Jerry Kaplan46830242

One of Kaplan’s main concerns with the ongoing development of what we know as Artificial Intelligence (AI) boils down to control: AI’s ability to acquire and process information is infinitely faster than a human's, and while AI can, does, and has made our lives easier in some ways, we must keep an eye on who owns the AI and who benefits from it. This books offers readers guidance in keeping up with the advances in technology as well as advice for how we should handle AI in terms of legislation and education. Kaplan wants to prepare readers to deal with unemployment, economic inequality, and corporate responsibility.


Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World
by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott47011756

The Tapscotts present an image of a possible future in which we have taken what made Bitcoin work and have applied that technology to the business world. The writers contend that if properly employed, blockchain — a sort of public record of currency-based transactions — can be expanded to include not only the exchange of money, but also whatever else we may find valuable and worth protecting. This could include everything from art to, as the book jacket suggests, aspects of our political process. While the book is optimistic, the Tapscotts are careful to acknowledge what they see as potential problems with blockchain, including government exploitation or those who have already amassed a great amount of power.


The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Machine Will Remake Our World
by Pedro Domingos46835845

According to Domingos, there are two main goals to his book. The first is to explain how machines learn and their use of algorithms to do so. He employs Amazon and Netflix as helpful examples to demonstrate what it means when we say a machine learns something. For Domingos, it’s important we understand this process because like it or not, learning machines are a part of our every day lives. The second goal is to help the reader act as a developer of the so-called Master Algorithm. Once we understand how machines learn, Domingos argues, we can help shape the future of machines and how they work with and for us.


Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor
by Virginia Eubanks47009446

In her book, Eubanks analyzes the ways in which marginalized groups face greater digital scrutiny and discrimination than dominant groups. Through years of research, Eubanks discovered that many of the systems in place to help those in need also serve as a means to track and surveil their activities. She bemoans the power of algorithms to invalidate applications for services because someone made a simple error. Automated decision-making, as she calls it, opens up a new era in America's long history of discrimination against people of color and the poor in all forms. She warns, too, of the inevitability of these automated decision-making systems harming everyone in the long run.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution
by Klaus Schwab46926612

Schwab argues against some that we are not entrenched in the third industrial revolution, but are instead already into the fourth industrial revolution. If we do not wish to acknowledge our immersion in the next revolution, Schwab argues, many will be left behind. In his book, Schwab sets out three goals: first, he wants to help readers understand just how all-encompassing and speedy this revolution is happening; second, he hopes to give us a means to conceptualize how to respond to the revolution; third, once we understand how to respond, he wants to engender cooperation between the public and private sectors to ensure widespread adaptation to and coexistence with the coming technological advances.


Machine|Platform|Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future
by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolffson46948303

Technology advances by leaps and bounds at a near-constant rate. As a result, the way we interact with our world and with one another changes as well. Moreover, the new machines we create end up being useful in ways that stretch beyond their original purpose. 3D printers are an excellent example of this, McAfee and Brynjolffson point out. In addition to technology doing more 'stuff' than we thought possible, the online platforms we use have revolutionized everything from commerce to hardware. Finally, the writers highlight, crowds, able to assemble in ways they couldn't in the past, have funded millions of projects and created new forms of currency. With these developments in mind, McAfee and Brynjolffson hope to guide readers through an understand of how the decisions we make now regarding these new technologies will impact, positively or negatively, the future of humanity.


The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the Tech Tide with Work That Wows and Jobs That Last 
by Tom Peters47018439

In his book, Peters opens with a discussion about the crisis facing American workers, both blue and white collar: technology. It isn't just machines, but machines that can questions we didn't know we had. As gloomy as this seems, Peters is an optimist, and he believes there is an element of the working world that machines cannot replicate or excel at, and that is the human touch. For Peters, excellence is the key not only to keeping up, but also to prospering; businesses and their workers will do better when they strive to achieve excellence, which, for Peters can be as simple as showing care in what they do and how they serve their communities and customers.


The Robots Are Coming: A Human's Survival Guide to Profiting in the Age of Automation 
by John Pugliano46934526

 
Pugliano offers readers strategies to cope with current and forthcoming economic changes facing employees. This book is meant to be a guide for workers to make themselves useful and in demand, even in an uncertain economic landscape such as we may face. He breaks his plan into four parts, and at the end of each part, he offers an Action Plan for readers to fill out. The action plans are skills-focused; this helps readers discover skills they may not know they have, and help readers understand the applicability of skills they do have. While success is never guaranteed, knowing your skill set and finding a niche will put you on the right path.


Unscaled: How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future
by Hemant Taneja with Kevin Maney47018432

This book is a celebration of the underdog, of sorts. Unscaled demonstrates how artificial intelligence (AI) and advancing technology has made it not only possible, but easy, for small businesses to take on and succeed against massive corporations. Taneja explains that technology has made 'unscaling' possible: no longer must companies appeal to every possible demographic in the hope of making a sale; now, thanks to AI, mass production and mass appeal is no longer necessary or desirable. Instead, small companies compete with large corporations by way of learning algorithms that target specific markets and create products with those markets in mind. Unscaling will revolutionize not only business, but nearly every aspect of our lives, Taneja says. We just have to make sure we make good choices as we move forward.


Book Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
By Steven Assarian

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Imagine guarding an empty room.

All day, you sit, guarding nothing of value. You can’t read or look at your phone, because if you do, your attention will be taken away from guarding the room. You’d get into trouble for that. But, day to day, nobody notices you because it doesn’t matter if you work or don’t work. You might get into trouble if you don’t show up, but your job is truly pointless.

This is what writer and anthropologist David Graeber writes is a bullshit job: a useless, often demoralizing job that does not need to exist.

His new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory began as essay in a British quarterly, Strike!, and it asks some important questions. It challenges the idea that market forces would not allow useless jobs to exist, because of their inefficiency. Graeber argues that these jobs proliferate in our economy, regardless of sector, and that this is profoundly damaging to people, not because the jobs are abusive, but that they have no real purpose.

Though the topic isn’t ‘fun,’ this is a fun book to read. It’s funny, in a terrifying sort of way. Receptionists that field a couple of calls a day, or people that sort paper clips, sound mortifying, like something out of Kafka.

This would be a hard problem to quantify for anyone, because whether or not a job is useless often depends on perception. Graeber posits that if a worker thinks their job is useless, they’re likely right, which isn’t a terrible idea. After all, nobody profits from calling their work useless. If anything, social norms would fight against that like crazy. Unfortunately, the sources of data he uses have glaring flaws.

His first source is three YouGov polls (in particular, one that posed the question “Does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world?” to Britons). It’s not explained how the poll was conducted, or the other questions that the polls asked. Out of all the things Graeber could’ve footnoted, this would be one. He even cites two other polls, one conducted in Denmark and the other in Holland. So the warrant that we’re asked to believe is that, because of polls conducted in three countries, two of which aren’t cited, that most jobs in the working world are meaningless. This is insufficient.

The second big source of data he’s drawing from is an e-mail account —doihaveabsjoborwhat@gmail.com — where people could describe in an email why exactly their job should be considered useless. As an anthropologist, Graeber should know what sort of selection bias this should cause. Sure, the anecdotes are cheeky and fun to read, but you can find fun and cheeky anecdotes while still respecting research and good data. This is a real missed opportunity. A study of workers by industry, trying to figure out where people’s perceptions lie in statistical terms, would’ve been really interesting. Why is it that 37% of British workers think their jobs don’t add anything to the world? Is it the same for Americans? What are the reasons these people continue to work in useless jobs? All of these questions could make for at least an interesting chapter, and could’ve been a pillar working in the service of his argument.

The book is best when he focuses on other people dealing with this question. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are when he speaks to other thinkers, and how they approached this question of meaning and work. When exploring great writers like Solzhenitsyn and Stanislaw Lem, he finds solid ground and interesting ideas. But he doesn’t chew on their ideas like he could have.

We are in a time that humanity has been seeking for thousands of years: we can choose where to put our efforts. Agriculture has long been automated, so has manufacturing, and soon we’ll be able to do so with services and management. So what is it, exactly, that we want people to do all day? How are we going to adapt when so much of our lives and our worth as people come from our work? How are we going to live in a world where we can be asked to do work, oftentimes well compensated work, that we don’t feel is necessary?

This is a good book for asking these questions, and giving us a language for talking about it, even if it is a bit, uh, crass. It is a fascinating read and thought-provoking one. But it needs far more real research and data to back up its claims. Graeber himself writes that our work is wrapped up in our identities as people. If you’re going to change a person’s conception of themselves and their world, you need good data.

If Graber expects to convince us that half of us are guarding empty rooms or sorting paper clips, he needs far more than what he has.



SBRC Services

The Small Business Resource Center has books, trade papers and magazines, pamphlets, and research databases you can use to help your business. But that’s not all the SBRC can do for you! We have a number of services that can be useful to the entrepreneur, the non-profit grant-seeker, and the job seeker as well!

Remote Reference – If you are looking to start a business, research is critical. A consultation with our Business Librarian can get you off on the right research foot. If you can't come down to the library, we offer the same help remotely. We will dig into market research to provide you with the information you can use to make your business successful.

Non-Profit Funding – Finding funding for your non-profit organization is a big task; the SBRC can make it a bit easier. We not only have books on fundraising for non-profits, but at the Main Library, you have access to the Foundation Directory Online Professional, where you can find the perfect funding source.

Resume Help – The resume can be a pretty frustrating document. You can schedule a consultation with the Business Librarian and he will sit and go through your resume with you. If you like your resume, but you’d just like some extra eyes on it, he can do that too. If you want to write a resume, but don't know where to begin, the SBRC can help you there, as well.

Cover Letter Help – Some people breeze through resume writing, but they freeze when they come to the cover letter. If you schedule a consultation with GRPL’s Business Librarian, he’ll sit down with you and give you useful feedback on your letter.


Call 616.988.5402 x5486 to schedule a consultation, or email businesslibrarian@grpl.org!



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Small Business Resource Center funding is provided by the Grand Rapids Public Library Foundation – Titche Family Fund.  Support your public library. Consider a gift today!



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